This month, Ralph Lauren recently introduced “Earth Polos,” which features polo shirts made of recycled plastic bottles through a process that consumes less water than standard methods. This spring, H&M also created a “Conscious Collection” that only uses eco-friendly materials, such as organic cotton or recycled polyester.
The fashion industry is slowly waking up to the urgency of climate change, but it still has a long way to go. Regina Morfin, sophomore studying manufacturing and design engineering, and Avantika Raikar, freshman studying industrial engineering, are taking an ambitious stab at creating a solution.
“We want to help apparel companies transition to more sustainable forms of production,” Raikar said. “We’re in the interview stage right now, where we’re trying to find ‘how’ we want to solve this problem. We’re thinking of advising people on what to use and what would best work for their kind of clothing.”
When Morfin and Raikar first met last year at the Launch program, a quarter-long startup incubator program hosted by Northwestern EPIC (Entrepreneurship in Action), they spoke about their interest in sustainability in fashion. While they pursued a beauty service during the program along with few other students, ultimately the two realized they worked well together and decided to tackle this issue as their passion project.
“For the first couple of months, all we did was just read a lot of books, learn about all these different sustainable methods of producing clothings, different ways you can cut carbon emissions, treat the water so that you can reuse it; using different natural fibers,” Morfin said.
Initially they imagined building something that could encourage manufacturers to employ more sustainable production process. Interviewing the manufacturers, however, turned out to be a huge challenge.
“Unless you’re going to give them business, they don’t want to talk to you,” Raikar said. “We did get through a few people, but it was very difficult. We would sit calling for hours and get through maybe one call.”
“There was also language barrier at times,” Morfin added, regarding their interviews with manufacturers in India and China.
Realizing that it is difficult to contact manufacturers, let alone change their customary production methods, Morfin and Raikar pivoted to approaching clothing brands directly. They said once the customers and brands demand eco-friendly products, manufacturers will adapt to the changing demand. Currently, they are interviewing apparel companies to better understand their decision-making steps.
“We found that a struggle that people have is with deciding what fiber to use and what kind of things would work for the clothing they’re trying to make and would still make it durable,” Raikar said.
This project was chosen for the Propel Program, a program at the Garage that supports female entrepreneurs. Aishwarya Jois, a Propel ambassador and a mentor for Morfin and Raikar during Launch, encouraged them to apply. While they thought they were too early in the stage to apply for the program, they still took the chance and earned their place.
“It’s very inspiring to see other women go after all these very interesting things,” Raikar said. “Every time we have a meeting, every time we see someone and hear about their project, it’s just a kick-in-the-ass to work on yours more, because you see people doing these amazing things.”
Morfin and Raikar are planning to come up with a specific solution by the end of the quarter and work on developing it most of next year.
“With the climate right now, [sustainability in fashion] is really getting talked, which is great for us,” Morfin said.
“But it’s a thing that people are finding difficult to do, because those fibers are a lot more expensive and you have to produce fabric in a different way. We want to make it easier for people to make that switch,” Raikar said. “A year from now, we would want to have at least helped a few small brands.”